Our warmup hikes brought a happy surprise: no shin pain. None at all. It was as if I’d never had an injury. I’m mystified, but there it is. I’d bought a 2 lb. bag if Safeway peas and carrots and didn’t even need it.
One of our hiking group has a brand-new Ph. D. in psychology. He proposed that my tendonitis had been an anxiety injury, because he’d suffered similar problems in recent weeks. I argued against it… I’ve hiked a lot, and I was in great shape when I hurt myself. There was the specific exercise I was doing that is, for better or worse, very hard on the tendons of the lower leg. And there was visible swelling (not in my brain, but in my ankle). The symptoms were real. Besides, even now that the hike is behind me, my left shin is still tender.
But I can’t say I was completely free of anxiety. It hit me Friday night, as we tried to go to sleep. We ate dinner early and planned to sleep from 8pm to midnight. I am not talented at sleeping when I know I have to get up in a few hours (although, ironically, I’m spectacularly talented at getting up in a few hours when I could sleep in if I wanted). I dozed briefly without achieving any actual rest. Thoughts flared through my mind like tracer bullets aimed at my fear center. Was I hydrated enough? Damn, I left my water bottle in the kitchen. Had I taken ginko after dinner? I couldn’t remember! Would my leg really be OK? What if I oversleep? What time is it?
Tiny sounds woke me. Normally I sleep like a deaf man in a coma. This night, to say that sleep was elusive would be like saying post-9/11 air travel presents occasional inconveniences. That is, it’s an understatement, with unpleasant consequences.
At 12:30 AM, I got up, ate a bowl of granola, stretched, filled water bottles, and did a final gear check. We were on the trail at 2:10 AM.
The group of seven stayed together for the first few hours. We hiked a 70-minute cycle: an hour hiking followed by a ten-minute break. The pace felt slow to me, but I expected to need whatever energy I was conserving for the final ascent. Also we’d lost two of seven headlamps; in order to share light we stayed in a tight line.
So it was social, but made for somewhat slow going. We reached Barr Camp, 6.8 miles and +3600 feet into the climb, at around 6:30 AM, on a pace of about 1.5 mph. For reference: my sea-level climbing pace is nearly twice as fast, 2.5-3 mph. In retrospect we were wondering if hiking in the dark is inherently slow. Personally I think it’s more an issue of group size, because we moved at the pace of the slowest hiker.
I don’t mean to say I felt like I was being held back. I was wary of injury (besides the recent tendonitis, I used to frequently suffer knee pain during climbs), and I was afraid to gain altitude too quickly, and I wanted to save my energy for the steeper climb at the top of the trail. So for those first four hours I was happy to stick with the group.
Then, leaving Barr Camp after sunrise, several of us decided to find our own pace. I set out with the three fastest of the seven. Two then dropped back to address an over-packing issue (one had to lighten his load) and ended up hanging back to help the rest of the group. I regret that we didn’t see them again until the summit.
I continued on with a guy who is training for the Denver marathon. All his high-altitude running has put him in excellent cardiovascular shape, and his pace was faster than mine. I told him as much, and was surprised to hear him disagree. Maybe there’s something to the psychology of leading or following that affects the perception of effort.
We hiked quickly through the rolling hills in the middle of the trail, slowing as we began the steep incline. We took occasional breaks, but never for long — a radio check-in with the other hikers, an occasional photo, a change of clothes.
This isn’t a particularly dramatic spot to split the narrative, but I’m going to do it anyway. Read part II.